Canada's History

Altar cloth

Ursuline nuns created this Nativity-themed brocade.

- by Mathieu Drouin

The Ursulines, a religious order of Catholic nuns, founded the first school for girls in New France in 1639. From the beginning, the creation of art and handicraft­s was an integral part of the nuns’ lives, serving both recreation­al and religious purposes and helping to diversify the congregati­on’s sources of revenue.

The Ursuline monastery in Quebec City was an important venue for artistic production from the seventeent­h century onward. The breadth of the Ursulines’ artistic practice — which included embroidery, painting, lacework, music, drawing, gilding, hair art, paper sculpting, basket making, and much more — reflects the importance the order placed on art for its own sake, as well as on the developmen­t of its members’ individual and collective talents.

This breathtaki­ng late-seventeent­h-century altar cloth is 2.6 metres long and is embroidere­d with metallic gold and silver thread. The floral patterns were created using a complex needle-painting technique, and the painted medallion in the centre is surrounded by embroidere­d linen upholstery. The materials used in the altar cloth were imported from France.

The artist, Mother Marie Lemaire dite des Anges, and her workshop produced dozens of works of embroidery for use in Catholic religious rites. Under Lemaire, the Ursulines elevated their embroidery into a profession­al practice, a significan­t developmen­t in the congregati­on’s rich artistic history.

The nuns’ students benefited from this artistic abundance, particular­ly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when many girls developed remarkable talents thanks to the Ursulines.

This article originally appeared in Cinquante merveilles de nos musées: les plus beaux trésors de la francophon­ie canadienne.

The special-interest publicatio­n was part of Projet Portage, a five-year Canada’s History Society initiative to connect history lovers in French and English Canada, generously supported by the Molson Foundation.

Above: A late-seventeent­hcentury altar cloth created by Marie Lemaire dite des Anges, an Ursuline nun in Quebec City. The Nativity scene in the centre is painted on linen and is surrounded by a richly ornate design consisting of foliage, arabesques, and scrolls that are embroidere­d with metallic thread. The flowers are painted on with a needle using wool and silk thread.

Left: The Ursuline Monastery National Historic Site of Canada in Quebec City. The Ursuline community has occupied this site since 1642. The area includes an impressive complex of buildings that date from the seventeent­h to the nineteenth centuries. Its chapel altar was created in 1730 and is regarded as a masterpiec­e of FrenchCana­dian wood sculpture.

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